Today I was reading an article by Alexandra Jacobs about two different exhibitions on fashion: one at the Henry Ford Museum outside of Detroit, Michigan and the other at the Costume Institute at the Met in New York. As the article outlines, the shows focus on two very different sections of America’s fashion history, thus highlighting two different collecting/curating techniques found in museums across the country. The Henry Ford Museum’s exhibition “American Style and Spirit”which displays the wardrobe of Augusta Roddis, a longtime advocate of education and daughter of a lumber mogul. In stark contrast, the Met just opened an exhibition entitled “Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion” which highlights extravagant and avant-garde works from the likes of Chanel, McQueen, and Versace. As Jacobs notes in her article, these shows are paradigms of two battling curatorial practices: “populist versus elite; contextualized versus abstracted; local versus global.”
As the Costume Institute’s curator, Andrew Bolton, makes clear, the collecting focus of the Met “prefers runway samples” because they “reflect the designer’s original intention.” This preference places the importance not on the people who actually wore the outfit, but rather the person who created it. Just as there is a canon in art, Mr. Bolton aims to elevate members of the fashion community into a similarly styled canon. This idea is readily seen in the recent shows at the Costume Institute such as “Manus x Machina” and even “China: Through the Looking Glass”. These exhibitions brought together works from a variety of eras and designers to discus larger themes, rather than tell the story of a single person. These shows also bring together blockbuster designers in order to create crowd appeal. “China: Through the Looking Glass” was the Met’s most popular exhibition in years in part because of its use of historic Chinese attire as a foil for contemporary high-fashion designs. The most recent shows at the Costume Institute scream of elitism because most people can only appreciate these intangible designs from an aesthetic perspective. There is very little relatable material at the Costume Institute exhibitions, and in many ways that is their appeal; these exhibitions are an escape from the every day into the extraordinary world of fashion gods like Anna Wintour. They are Vogue Editorials brought into the museum.
The Henry Ford Museum exhibition is the polar opposite. “American Style and Spirit” uses the wardrobe of Augusta Roddis as a means to discuss what America was like at the time. Instead of putting the visitors into an awestruck stupor, Jeannine Head Miller, the museum’s curator of domestic life, “wanted to bring people into the exhibit and not feel like they had to be fashionistas to enjoy it.” Much of Ms. Roddis’ wardrobe was made by anonymous dress makers, with only the patterns evidence of a dress’s creation. The focus of this exhibition, then, is on the story these clothes can tell, in collaboration with letters and receipts. While the Met and the Costume Institute focus on the garment and the creator, the Henry Ford Museum uses its fashion archive to tell another story about America’s past. There is a contextualization that does not appear in the theatrical shows on display in New York. But perhaps that’s okay.
Reading this article got me thinking more deeply about museums, both small and large, and their role in defining culture. If we looked solely at institutions such as the Met as the source of fashion culture and history, the only names that would be seen as important would be those featured heavily in their exhibitions. Mr. Brodrick has made it clear that his fashion preference is “designers who in a way make us think differently about fashion, who go beyond notions of wearability or functionality,” but what about the designers who don’t fit that mold? While the avant-garde designers are certainly making waves in fashion with their daring style, there are certainly designers worth noting who make clothes for the every day woman. If these clothes are not being collected as well, how will the exhibitions of the future look? Certainly, people cannot think that the Yves Saint Laurent dress made out of bird-of-paradise feathers was worn by every woman? Only time will tell.
What someone choses to collect tells a lot of about the collector, but also deeply influences how the past will be seen by generations to come. The Met, through their fashion archives, tells a very particular story about a very small subset of fashion throughout history. The Henry Ford Museum is attempting to tell a different story, one that contains some of the same high fashion names but also brings to light long-forgotten designers and stores. There are so many other stories out there, but it seems like no one is out there collecting them. Unfortunately, beginning to archive the everyday is an impossible task that creates a very slippery slope of what is worth collecting. Fashion changes so frequently and it is near impossible to know what will have a lasting effect on fashion years from now. But I think it’s worth a shot to try and tell the non-obvious story. It’s my hope that other institutions will see the possibility of looking at the mundane as a means to creating a larger narrative.